Pelham begins with a group of men boarding a subway train. These men are a strange mix of middle-aged men and old men. The leader of the group is British mercenary Bernard Ryder aka “Mr. Blue,” played by the vast underrated Robert Shaw. Shaw is an amazing actor with incredible range who deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of the greatest actors of all time. He leads a group that includes a man who comes across as a bloodthirsty thug (Hector Elizondo as Giuseppe Benvenuto aka “Mr. Grey”), an old guy who talks too much (Martin Balsam as Harold Longman aka “Mr. Green”) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman). Balsam is a former motorman who worked for the New York City Transit Authority driving subway trains until he was busted for drugs.
Meanwhile, Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) is going through his day. Today features a tour of the Transit Authority command center for visiting Japanese dignitaries, who run the Tokyo subway. They apparently don't speak English, so Matthau's tour is rather a waste. As Matthau finishes the tour, he hears the hijackers' call coming over the radio. He takes command of the situation and also bring in the transit police. This begins a cat and mouse game between Matthau and Shaw as Shaw tries to force Matthau to give him the money he demands and Matthau tries to solve how Shaw plans to escape from a closed tunnel.
Pelham is a great film that has stood the test of time. It has been referenced in popular culture, it still gets played regularly on multiple channels, and there was even a sequel made -- the remake wasn't bad, but is forgettable. So what made this film so good? The characters.
Before we address the characters, let me point out a few things. First, this film is really well written. The story itself is very clever. For one thing, consider the scheme itself. Who would ever think to hijack a subway train? Not only do subway trains generally have nothing of value on them, but talk about a trap! Unlike hijacking a plane or taking something from a fixed location and then trying to get away on foot or by car or whatever, a subway train is stuck on a track. It can only go to a handful of places and the tower will know exactly where it is headed at all times. What's more, even after you leave the car, you still need to leave the subway itself, which is easily flooded with cops. So taking a subway is already a fascinatingly unique and clever idea.
Secondly, the film gives you a really good insight into the world of running a subway. Films that do that are always appreciated because it helps the audience feel like they are being immersed in a new, yet very real world. It's the same instinct that draws us to documentaries, and here it acts as a bonus in the film.
The whole film is full of lines like this.
Now let's talk about the characters. Few heist films give you much in the way of characters. What they really do instead is sell you the actors. Yes, there might be some back-story presented to fill in the characters (and the target will be presented as sufficiently odious that the audience comes to believe that stealing from them is the good moral choice), but what they really sell you is the chemistry between the actors.
All of this makes this one of those films that is truly rare today. It is an intensely clever film about a battle of minds and wills between two top men in a very real world. There is no cartoon action, no cartoon villain, and nothing gets dumbed-down.